The Hollow Needle/Chapter Nine
The Etretat Needle was hollow!
Was it a natural phenomenon, an excavation produced by internal cataclysms or by the imperceptible action of the rushing sea and the soaking rain? Or was it a superhuman work executed by human beings, Gauls, Celts, prehistoric men?
These, no doubt, were insoluble questions; and what did it matter? The essence of the thing was contained in this fact: The Needle was hollow. At forty or fifty yards from that imposing arch which is called the Porte d'Aval and which shoots out from the top of the cliff, like the colossal branch of a tree, to take root in the submerged rocks, stands an immense limestone cone; and this cone is no more than the shell of a pointed cap poised upon the empty waters!
A prodigious revelation! After Lupin, here was Beautrelet discovering the key to the great riddle that had loomed over more than twenty centuries! A key of supreme importance to whoever possessed it in the days of old, in those distant times when hordes of barbarians rode through and overran the old world! A magic key that opens the cyclopean cavern to whole tribes fleeing before the enemy! A mysterious key that guards the door of the most inviolable shelter! An enchanted key that gives power and ensures preponderance!
Because he knows this key, Caesar is able to subdue Gaul. Because they know it, the Normans force their sway upon the country and, from there, later, backed by that support, conquer the neighboring island, conquer Sicily, conquer the East, conquer the new world!
Masters of the secret, the Kings of England lord it over France, humble her, dismember her, have themselves crowned at Paris. They lose the secret; and the rout begins.
Masters of the secret, the Kings of France push back and overstep the narrow limits of their dominion, gradually founding a great nation and radiating with glory and power. They forget it or know not how to use it; and death, exile, ruin follow.
An invisible kingdom, in mid-water and at ten fathoms from land! An unknown fortress, taller than the towers of Notre Dame and built upon a granite foundation larger than a public square! What strength and what security! From Paris to the sea, by the Seine. There, the Havre, the new town, the necessary town. And, sixteen miles thence, the Hollow Needle, the impregnable sanctuary!
It is a sanctuary and also a stupendous hiding-place. All the treasures of the kings, increasing from century to century, all the gold of France, all that they extort from the people, all that they snatch from the clergy, all the booty gathered on the battle-fields of Europe lie heaped up in the royal cave. Old Merovingian gold sous, glittering crown-pieces, doubloons, ducats, florins, guineas; and the precious stones and the diamonds; and all the jewels and all the ornaments: everything is there. Who could discover it? Who could ever learn the impenetrable secret of the Needle? Nobody.
And Lupin becomes that sort of really disproportionate being whom we know, that miracle incapable of explanation so long as the truth remains in the shadow. Infinite though the resources of his genius be, they cannot suffice for the mad struggle which he maintains against society. He needs other, more material resources. He needs a sure place of retreat, he needs the certainty of impunity, the peace that allows of the execution of his plans.
Without the Hollow Needle, Lupin is incomprehensible, a myth, a character in a novel, having no connection with reality.
Master of the secret—and of such a secret!—he becomes simply a man like another, but gifted with the power of wielding in a superior manner the extraordinary weapon with which destiny has endowed him.
So the Needle was hollow.
It remained to discover how one obtained access to it.
From the sea, obviously. There must be, on the side of the offing, some fissure where boats could land at certain hours of the tide.
But on the side of the land?
Beautrelet lay until ten o'clock at night hanging over the precipice, with his eyes riveted on the shadowy mass formed by the pyramid, thinking and pondering with all the concentrated effort of his mind.
Then he went down to Etretat, selected the cheapest hotel, dined, went up to his room and unfolded the document.
It was the merest child's play to him now to establish its exact meaning. He at once saw that the three vowels of the word Etretat occurred in the first line, in their proper order and at the necessary intervals. This first line now read as follows:
e . a . a .. etretat . a ..
What words could come before Etretat? Words, no doubt, that referred to the position of the Needle with regard to the town. Now the Needle stood on the left, on the west—He ransacked his memory and, recollecting that westerly winds are called vents d'aval on the coast and that the nearest porte was known as the Porte d'Aval, he wrote down:
"En aval d'Etretat . a .."
The second line was that containing the word Demoiselles and, at once seeing, in front of that word, the series of all the vowels that form part of the words la chambre des, he noted the two phrases:
"En aval d'Etretat. La Chambre des Demoiselles."
The third line gave him more trouble; and it was not until some groping that, remembering the position, near the Chambre des Demoiselles, of the Fort de Frefosse, he ended by almost completely reconstructing the document:
"En aval d'Etretat. La Chambre des Demoiselles. Sous le Fort de Frefosse. L'Aiguille creuse."
These were the four great formulas, the essential and general formulas which you had to know. By means of them, you turned en aval, that is to say, below or west of Etretat, entered the Chambre des Demoiselles, in all probability passed under Fort Frefosse and thus arrived at the Needle.
How? By means of the indications and measurements that constituted the fourth line:
[Illustration: drawing of an outline of paper with writing and drawing on it—numbers, dots, some letters, signs and symbols...]
These were evidently the more special formulas to enable you to find the outlet through which you made your way and the road that led to the Needle.
Beautrelet at once presumed—and his surmise was no more than the logical consequence of the document—that, if there really was a direct communication between the land and the obelisk of the Needle, the underground passage must start from the Chambre des Demoiselles, pass under Fort Frefosse, descend perpendicularly the three hundred feet of cliff and, by means of a tunnel contrived under the rocks of the sea, end at the Hollow Needle.
Which was the entrance to the underground passage? Did not the two letters D and F, so plainly cut, point to it and admit to it, with the aid, perhaps, of some ingenious piece of mechanism?
The whole of the next morning, Isidore strolled about Etretat and chatted with everybody he met, in order to try and pick up useful information. At last, in the afternoon, he went up the cliff. Disguised as a sailor, he had made himself still younger and, in a pair of trousers too short for him and a fishing jersey, he looked a mere scape-grace of twelve or thirteen.
As soon as he entered the cave, he knelt down before the letters. Here a disappointment awaited him. It was no use his striking them, pushing them, manipulating them in every way: they refused to move. And it was not long, in fact, before he became aware that they were really unable to move and that, therefore, they controlled no mechanism.
And yet—and yet they must mean something! Inquiries which he had made in the village went to show that no one had ever been able to explain their existence and that the Abbe Cochet, in his valuable little book on Etretat,[Footnote: Les Origines d'Etretat. The Abbe Cochet seems to conclude, in the end, that the two letters are the initials of a passer-by. The revelations now made prove the fallacy of the theory.] had also tried in vain to solve this little puzzle. But Isidore knew what the learned Norman archaeologist did not know, namely, that the same two letters figured in the document, on the line containing the indications. Was it a chance coincidence: Impossible. Well, then—?
An idea suddenly occurred to him, an idea so reasonable, so simple that he did not doubt its correctness for a second. Were not that D and that F the initials of the two most important words in the document, the words that represented—together with the Needle—the essential stations on the road to be followed: the Chambre des Demoiselles and Fort Frefosse: D for Demoiselles, F for Frefosse: the connection was too remarkable to be a mere accidental fact.
In that case, the problem stood thus: the two letters D F represent the relation that exists between the Chambre des Demoiselles and Fort Frefosse, the single letter D, which begins the line, represents the Demoiselles, that is to say, the cave in which you have to begin by taking up your position, and the single letter F, placed in the middle of the line, represents Frefosse, that is to say, the probable entrance to the underground passage.
Between these various signs, are two more: first, a sort of irregular rectangle, marked with a stripe in the left bottom corner, and, next, the figure 19, signs which obviously indicate to those inside the cave the means of penetrating beneath the fort.
The shape of this rectangle puzzled Isidore. Was there around him, on the walls of the cave, or at any rate within reach of his eyes, an inscription, anything whatever, affecting a rectangular shape?
He looked for a long time and was on the point of abandoning that particular scent when his eyes fell upon the little opening, pierced in the rock, that acted as a window to the chamber.
Now the edges of this opening just formed a rectangle: corrugated, uneven, clumsy, but still a rectangle; and Beautrelet at once saw that, by placing his two feet on the D and the F carved in the stone floor—and this explained the stroke that surmounted the two letters in the document—he found himself at the exact height of the window!
He took up his position in this place and gazed out. The window looking landward, as we know, he saw, first, the path that connected the cave with the land, a path hung between two precipices; and, next, he caught sight of the foot of the hillock on which the fort stood. To try and see the fort, Beautrelet leaned over to the left and it was then that he understood the meaning of the curved stripe, the comma that marked the left bottom corner in the document: at the bottom on the left-hand side of the window, a piece of flint projected and the end of it was curved like a claw. It suggested a regular shooter's mark. And, when a man applied his eye to this mark, he saw cut out, on the slope of the mound facing him, a restricted surface of land occupied almost entirely by an old brick wall, a remnant of the original Fort Frefosse or of the old Roman oppidum built on this spot.
Beautrelet ran to this piece of wall, which was, perhaps, ten yards long. It was covered with grass and plants. There was no indication of any kind visible. And yet that figure 19?
He returned to the cave, took from his pocket a ball of string and a tape-measure, tied the string to the flint corner, fastened a pebble at the nineteenth metre and flung it toward the land side. The pebble at most reached the end of the path.
"Idiot that I am!" thought Beautrelet. "Who reckoned by metres in those days? The figure 19 means 19 fathoms [Footnote: The toise, or fathom, measured 1.949 metres.—Translator's Note.] or nothing!"
Having made the calculation, he ran out the twine, made a knot and felt about on the piece of wall for the exact and necessarily one point at which the knot, formed at 37 metres from the window of the Demoiselles, should touch the Frefosse wall. In a few moments, the point of contact was established. With his free hand, he moved aside the leaves of mullein that had grown in the interstices. A cry escaped him. The knot, which he held pressed down with his fore- finger, was in the centre of a little cross carved in relief on a brick. And the sign that followed on the figure 19 in the document was a cross!
It needed all his will-power to control the excitement with which he was overcome. Hurriedly, with convulsive fingers, he clutched the cross and, pressing upon it, turned it as he would have turned the spokes of a wheel. The brick heaved. He redoubled his effort; it moved no further. Then, without turning, he pressed harder. He at once felt the brick give way. And, suddenly, there was the click of a bolt that is released, the sound of a lock opening and, on the right of the brick, to the width of about a yard, the wall swung round on a pivot and revealed the orifice of an underground passage.
Like a madman, Beautrelet seized the iron door in which the bricks were sealed, pulled it back, violently and closed it. Astonishment, delight, the fear of being surprised convulsed his face so as to render it unrecognizable. He beheld the awful vision of all that had happened there, in front of that door, during twenty centuries; of all those people, initiated into the great secret, who had penetrated through that issue: Celts, Gauls, Romans, Normans, Englishmen, Frenchmen, barons, dukes, kings—and, after all of them, Arsene Lupin—and, after Lupin, himself, Beautrelet. He felt that his brain was slipping away from him. His eyelids fluttered. He fell fainting and rolled to the bottom of the slope, to the very edge of the precipice.
His task was done, at least the task which he was able to accomplish alone, with his unaided resources.
That evening, he wrote a long letter to the chief of the detective service, giving a faithful account of the results of his investigations and revealing the secret of the Hollow Needle. He asked for assistance to complete his work and gave his address.
While waiting for the reply, he spent two consecutive nights in the Chambre des Demoiselles. He spent them overcome with fear, his nerves shaken with a terror which was increased by the sounds of the night. At every moment, he thought he saw shadows approach in his direction. People knew of his presence in the cave—they were coming—they were murdering him!
His eyes, however, staring madly before them, sustained by all the power of his will, clung to the piece of wall.
On the first night, nothing stirred; but, on the second, by the light of the stars and a slender crescent-moon, he saw the door open and figures emerge from the darkness: he counted two, three, four, five of them.
It seemed to him that those five men were carrying fairly large loads. He followed them for a little way. They cut straight across the fields to the Havre road; and he heard the sound of a motor car driving away.
He retraced his steps, skirting a big farm. But, at the turn of the road that ran beside it, he had only just time to scramble up a slope and hide behind some trees. More men passed—four, five men— all carrying packages. And, two minutes later, another motor snorted.
This time, he had not the strength to return to his post; and he went back to bed.
When he woke and had finished dressing, the hotel waiter brought him a letter. He opened it. It contained Ganimard's card.
"At last!" cried Beautrelet, who, after so hard a campaign, was really feeling the need of a comrade-in-arms.
He ran downstairs with outstretched hands. Ganimard took them, looked at him for a moment and said:
"You're a fine fellow, my lad!"
"Pooh!" he said. "Luck has served me."
"There's no such thing as luck with 'him,'" declared the inspector, who always spoke of Lupin in a solemn tone and without mentioning his name.
He sat down:
"So we've got him!"
"Just as we've had him twenty times over," said Beautrelet, laughing.
"Yes, but to-day—"
"To-day, of course, the case is different. We know his retreat, his stronghold, which means, when all is said, that Lupin is Lupin. He can escape. The Etretat Needle cannot."
"Why do you suppose that he will escape?" asked Ganimard, anxiously.
"Why do you suppose that he requires to escape?" replied Beautrelet. "There is nothing to prove that he is in the Needle at present. Last night, eleven of his men left it. He may be one of the eleven."
"You are right. The great thing is the Hollow Needle. For the rest, let us hope that chance will favor us. And now, let us talk."
He resumed his serious voice, his self-important air and said:
"My dear Beautrelet, I have orders to recommend you to observe the most absolute discretion in regard to this matter."
"Orders from whom?" asked Beautrelet, jestingly. "The prefect of police?"
"Higher than that."
"The prime minister?"
Ganimard lowered his voice:
"Beautrelet, I was at the Elysee last night. They look upon this matter as a state secret of the utmost gravity. There are serious reasons for concealing the existence of this citadel—reasons of military strategy, in particular. It might become a revictualling centre, a magazine for new explosives, for lately-invented projectiles, for anything of that sort: the secret arsenal of France, in fact."
"But how can they hope to keep a secret like this? In the old days, one man alone held it: the king. To-day, already, there are a good few of us who know it, without counting Lupin's gang."
"Still, if we gained only ten years', only five years' silence! Those five years may be—the saving of us."
"But, in order to capture this citadel, this future arsenal, it will have to be attacked, Lupin must be dislodged. And all this cannot be done without noise."
"Of course, people will guess something, but they won't know. Besides, we can but try."
"All right. What's your plan?"
"Here it is, in two words. To begin with, you are not Isidore Beautrelet and there's no question of Arsene Lupin either. You are and you remain a small boy of Etretat, who, while strolling about the place, caught some fellows coming out of an underground passage. This makes you suspect the existence of a flight of steps which cuts through the cliff from top to bottom."
"Yes, there are several of those flights of steps along the coast. For instance, to the right of Etretat, opposite Benouville, they showed me the Devil's Staircase, which every bather knows. And I say nothing of the three or four tunnels used by the fishermen."
"So you will guide me and one-half of my men. I shall enter alone, or accompanied, that remains to be seen. This much is certain, that the attack must be delivered that way. If Lupin is not in the Needle, we shall fix up a trap in which he will be caught sooner or later. If he is there—"
"If he is there, he will escape from the Needle by the other side, the side overlooking the sea."
"In that case, he will at once be arrested by the other half of my men."
"Yes, but if, as I presume, you choose a moment when the sea is at low ebb, leaving the base of the Needle uncovered, the chase will be public, because it will take place before all the men and women fishing for mussels, shrimps and shell-fish who swarm on the rocks round about."
"That is why I just mean to select the time when the sea is full."
"In that case, he will make off in a boat."
"Ah, but I shall have a dozen fishing-smacks, each of which will be commanded by one of my men, and we shall collar him—"
"If he doesn't slip through your dozen smacks, like a fish through the meshes."
"All right, then I'll sink him."
"The devil you will! Shall you have guns?"
"Why, of course! There's a torpedo-boat at the Havre at this moment. A telegram from me will bring her to the Needle at the appointed hour."
"How proud Lupin will be! A torpedo-boat! Well, M. Ganimard, I see that you have provided for everything. We have only to go ahead. When do we deliver the assault?"
"No, by daylight, at the flood-tide, as the clock strikes ten in the morning."
Under his show of gaiety, Beautrelet concealed a real anguish of mind. He did not sleep until the morning, but lay pondering over the most impracticable schemes, one after the other.
Ganimard had left him in order to go to Yport, six or seven miles from Etretat, where, for prudence's sake, he had told his men to meet him, and where he chartered twelve fishing smacks, with the ostensible object of taking soundings along the coast.
At a quarter to ten, escorted by a body of twelve stalwart men, he met Isidore at the foot of the road that goes up the cliff.
At ten o'clock exactly, they reached the skirt of wall. It was the decisive moment.
At ten o'clock exactly.
"Why, what's the matter with you, Beautrelet?" jeered Ganimard. "You're quite green in the face!"
"It's as well you can't see yourself, Ganimard," the boy retorted. "One would think your last hour had come!"
They both had to sit down and Ganimard swallowed a few mouthfuls of rum.
"It's not funk," he said, "but, by Jove, this is an exciting business! Each time that I'm on the point of catching him, it takes me like that in the pit of the stomach. A dram of rum?"
"And if you drop behind?"
"That will mean that I'm dead."
"B-r-r-r-r! However, we'll see. And now, open, sesame! No danger of our being observed, I suppose?"
"No. The Needle is not so high as the cliff, and, besides, there's a bend in the ground where we are."
Beautrelet went to the wall and pressed upon the brick. The bolt was released and the underground passage came in sight.
By the gleam of the lanterns which they lit, they saw that it was cut in the shape of a vault and that both the vaulting and the floor itself were entirely covered with bricks.
They walked for a few seconds and, suddenly, a staircase appeared. Beautrelet counted forty-five brick steps, which the slow action of many footsteps had worn away in the middle.
"Blow!" said Ganimard, holding his head and stopping suddenly, as though he had knocked against something.
"What is it?"
"Bother!" muttered Beautrelet, looking at it. "And not an easy one to break down either. It's just a solid block of iron."
"We are done," said Ganimard. "There's not even a lock to it."
"Exactly. That's what gives me hope."
"A door is made to open; and, as this one has no lock, that means that there is a secret way of opening it."
"And, as we don't know the secret—"
"I shall know it in a minute."
"By means of the document. The fourth line has no other object but to solve each difficulty as and when it crops up. And the solution is comparatively easy, because it's not written with a view to throwing searchers off the scent, but to assisting them."
"Comparatively easy! I don't agree with you," cried Ganimard, who had unfolded the document. "The number 44 and a triangle with a dot in it: that doesn't tell us much!"
"Yes, yes, it does! Look at the door. You see it's strengthened, at each corner, with a triangular slab of iron; and the slabs are fixed with big nails. Take the left-hand bottom slab and work the nail in the corner: I'll lay ten to one we've hit the mark."
"You've lost your bet," said Ganimard, after trying.
"Then the figure 44 must mean—"
In a low voice, reflecting as he spoke, Beautrelet continued:
"Let me see—Ganimard and I are both standing on the bottom step of the staircase—there are 45. Why 45, when the figure in the document is 44? A coincidence? No. In all this business, there is no such thing as a coincidence, at least not an involuntary one. Ganimard, be so good as to move one step higher up. That's it, don't leave this forty-fourth step. And now I will work the iron nail. And the trick's done, or I'll eat my boots!"
The heavy door turned on its hinges. A fairly spacious cavern appeared before their eyes.
"We must be exactly under Fort Frefosse," said Beautrelet. "We have passed through the different earthy layers by now. There will be no more brick. We are in the heart of the solid limestone."
The room was dimly lit by a shaft of daylight that came from the other end. Going up to it, they saw that it was a fissure in the cliff, contrived in a projecting wall and forming a sort of observatory. In front of them, at a distance of fifty yards, the impressive mass of the Needle loomed from the waves. On the right, quite close, was the arched buttress of the Porte d'Aval and, on the left, very far away, closing the graceful curve of a large inlet, another rocky gateway, more imposing still, was cut out of the cliff; the Manneporte, [Footnote: Magna porta.] which was so wide and tall that a three-master could have passed through it with all sail set. Behind and everywhere, the sea.
"I don't see our little fleet," said Beautrelet.
"I know," said Ganimard. "The Porte d'Aval hides the whole of the coast of Etretat and Yport. But look, over there, in the offing, that black line, level with the water—"
"That's our fleet of war, Torpedo-boat No. 25. With her there, Lupin is welcome to break loose—if he wants to study the landscape at the bottom of the sea."
A baluster marked the entrance to the staircase, near the fissure. They started on their way down. From time to time, a little window pierced the wall of the cliff; and, each time, they caught sight of the Needle, whose mass seemed to them to grow more and more colossal.
A little before reaching high-water level, the windows ceased and all was dark.
Isidore counted the steps aloud. At the three hundred and fifty- eight, they emerged into a wider passage, which was barred by another iron door strengthened with slabs and nails.
"We know all about this," said Beautrelet. "The document gives us 357 and a triangle dotted on the right. We have only to repeat the performance."
The second door obeyed like the first. A long, a very long tunnel appeared, lit up at intervals by the gleam of a lantern swung from the vault. The walls oozed moisture and drops of water fell to the ground, so that, to make walking easier a regular pavement of planks had been laid from end to end.
"We are passing under the sea," said Beautrelet. "Are you coming, Ganimard?"
Without replying, the inspector ventured into the tunnel, followed the wooden foot-plank and stopped before a lantern, which he took down.
"The utensils may date back to the Middle Ages, but the lighting is modern," he said. "Our friends use incandescent mantles."
He continued his way. The tunnel ended in another and a larger cave, with, on the opposite side, the first steps of a staircase that led upward.
"It's the ascent of the Needle beginning," said Ganimard. "This is more serious."
But one of his men called him:
"There's another flight here, sir, on the left."
And, immediately afterward, they discovered a third, on the right.
"The deuce!" muttered the inspector. "This complicates matters. If we go by this way, they'll make tracks by that."
"Shall we separate?" asked Beautrelet.
"No, no—that would mean weakening ourselves. It would be better for one of us to go ahead and scout."
"I will, if you like—"
"Very well, Beautrelet, you go. I will remain with my men—then there will be no fear of anything. There may be other roads through the cliff than that by which we came and several roads also through the Needle. But it is certain that, between the cliff and the Needle, there is no communication except the tunnel. Therefore they must pass through this cave. And so I shall stay here till you come back. Go ahead, Beautrelet, and be prudent: at the least alarm, scoot back again."
Isidore disappeared briskly up the middle staircase. At the thirtieth step, a door, an ordinary wooden door, stopped him. He seized the handle turned it. The door was not locked.
He entered a room that seemed to him very low owing to its immense size. Lit by powerful lamps and supported by squat pillars, with long vistas showing between them, it had nearly the same dimensions as the Needle itself. It was crammed with packing cases and miscellaneous objects—pieces of furniture, oak settees, chests, credence-tables, strong-boxes—a whole confused heap of the kind which one sees in the basement of an old curiosity shop.
On his right and left, Beautrelet perceived the wells of two staircases, the same, no doubt, that started from the cave below. He could easily have gone down, therefore, and told Ganimard. But a new flight of stairs led upward in front of him and he had the curiosity to pursue his investigations alone.
Thirty more steps. A door and then a room, not quite so large as the last, Beautrelet thought. And again, opposite him, an ascending flight of stairs.
Thirty steps more. A door. A smaller room.
Beautrelet grasped the plan of the works executed inside the Needle. It was a series or rooms placed one above the other and, therefore, gradually decreasing in size. They all served as store-rooms.
In the fourth, there was no lamp. A little light filtered in through clefts in the walls and Beautrelet saw the sea some thirty feet below him.
At that moment, he felt himself so far from Ganimard that a certain anguish began to take hold of him and he had to master his nerves lest he should take to his heels. No danger threatened him, however, and the silence around him was even so great that he asked himself whether the whole Needle had not been abandoned by Lupin and his confederates.
"I shall not go beyond the next floor," he said to himself.
Thirty stairs again and a door. This door was lighter in construction and modern in appearance. He pushed it open gently, quite prepared for flight. There was no one there. But the room differed from the others in its purpose. There were hangings on the walls, rugs on the floor. Two magnificent sideboards, laden with gold and silver plate, stood facing each other. The little windows contrived in the deep, narrow cleft were furnished with glass panes.
In the middle of the room was a richly-decked table, with a lace- edged cloth, dishes of fruits and cakes, champagne in decanters and flowers, heaps of flowers.
Three places were laid around the table.
Beautrelet walked up. On the napkins were cards with the names of the party. He read first:
"Mme. Arsene Lupin."
He took up the third card and started back with surprise. It bore his own name: